Monday, November 5, 2018

Steve Martin's MasterClass is as much a treasure as the man himself

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

I wasn't sure what I'd be getting when I started Steve Martin's Masterclass "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy." There's Steve the Comedian, who also appears as Steve the Host and Steve the Talk Show Guest - the guy whose comic persona often plays as sincere insincerity. Would his course work be expressed via irony laden monologues and dry anecdotes?

Or would it be Steve Martin the Serious Artist, who once upset an audience that came to a public interview about his novel because he was discussing the art world (the subject of said novel) and not telling jokes or talking about his career. The audience was apparently so bored that they demanded - and got - refunds.

I saw Mr. Steve Martin's play BRIGHT STAR when it was in previews in San Diego a few years ago, and it too was a largely serious script, the tension broken only intermittently with one-liners that carried Martin's familiar voice. Between that and having read a few of his books, I knew that he didn't always write in the comic voice for which he was best known. I had a brief thought that peeking behind the curtain of Steve's carefully crafted comic voice might be a bit like dissecting a frog - impossible to do without killing it.

With that risk and possibility of total boredom awaiting me, I started the class.

I loved it. This is Steve Martin at his most charming. Not once did I feel him talking down to his audience and it's clear he had put an immense amount of thought into what he was saying. If Mamet was the erudite professor who loved to hear himself talk and Apatow was the shoot-from-the-hip guy who tells you informally how it is, Martin is the platonic ideal in-between them. He's laser-focused and gets right to the heart of every topic. That efficiency means he makes his point effectively and is able to move on to a broader variety of topics.

You might have noticed the class is called "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy," Not "Steve Martin Teaches Stand-Up Comedy," "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy Screenwriting," or "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy Performance." That's because Mr. Steve Martin doesn't limit his focus to just one of those topics, but encompasses many forms of comedy, including the three I cited.

From the beginning, Steve lays out his philosophy, telling people in the introduction that he doesn't believe people need to have a particular gift to be funny. In fact, he later says, "I had no talent," when he was starting out. He believes he became funny through the hard work of learning what was funny, learning how one particular construction of words could elicit a laugh while a similar but different configuration was less effective.

Several of the early lessons focus on gathering material, discovering one's comedic voice and how they express themselves. He talks about building a comic persona and dovetails into how stand-up comedy writing should be more than just set-up/punchline.

One thing that really stood out to me was how he distinguished himself from his contemporaries. Steve began in stand-up in the 70s, in a very political time. There were hundreds of comedians doing political humor, so he went non-political at a very political time. "Rather than be at the tail end of an old movement, I was at the front end of the new movement," he says. Going that way defined his comic persona and helped him hone the kinds of jokes that fit that. A comedian's best jokes can only be delivered by that person, he seems to believe, and he demonstrates this when he asks the audience to imagine signature bits delivered by different iconic comedians.

And it seems obvious when pointed out, but how often do you find yourself thinking about comedy that way? This led me to imagine Rodney Dangerfield delivering a George Carlin monologue. It probably wouldn't have worked and once you start thinking about the reasons why, everything Steve says makes sense. It's not even that Steve uses the Masterclass to tell you how to be Steve Martin. He tells you the mechanics behind how Steve Martin was built and does it in a way that lets you apply that process to you.

There's a lot of great, practical advice in how you perform for the stage. Considering Steve is a master of timing, it was incredibly valuable to hear him deconstruct the rhythm of a bit and then show us a clip of that bit in action.

Here's a good example of how Steve's precision made me think about something that never would have crossed my mind. One of his pet peeves is a comedian who starts the act with "How are we all doing tonight?" Steve says, "You've blown one of the most important moments of your show, which is 'It's beginning and who are you and how you define yourself.' Second, you've asked the audience to participate... which is almost the worst thing that can happen unless you're highly skilled in dealing with that."

He then runs a clip of his early standup act. Steve takes to the stage with a banjo as the audience applauds. He milks the applause as if he's embarrassed by it, playing it over the top so that we get, "ah, it's a bit pompous." He playfully flips the audience the bird, says "Thank you! I'll take that." Then after quickly fiddling with a water bottle (I assume in parody of how other comedians would), he says, "We're gonna start the show in just a few minutes... just waiting for the drugs to kick in." And you go, "Ah! THAT is Steve Martin."

There are a couple lessons that deal with writing screenplays and developing characters, and I would say that Martin's thoughts are at least as insightful and useful as those given by Sorkin, Rhimes and Mamet in other classes I've taken. (They go into greater depth, but the lessons certainly compliment each other.) There are even a few digressions into comedy acting for the screen, with one example being a FATHER OF THE BRIDE scene where Steve barely does anything, but because of how he played that, the audience imposed so much emotion and humor onto his blank slate.

I think these MasterClasses work best when the instructor is given some students to play off of and react to. Steve is given four comedy writers, some who have written stand-up pieces and some who have written sketches. He reads some of their pieces and as he does, suggest changes that always improve the act. For example, he'll note that a joke premise is promising, but is laser-focused when a later joke seems to slightly shift subjects in a way that confuses the audience. He's able to identify parts that are funny, but aren't helping the shape of the larger joke. It's like watching a master editor say "Cut this, move this up here. Change this word. Stop this joke here" and somehow it improves remarkably.

Notably, Steve does this in a way that's encouraging and always leaves the writer feeling good about the changes. They can tell he's made the joke better and done so in a way that as he continues through the act, you start hearing the jokes the way he does. He's quietly effective at not just pointing out what's wrong, but in teaching you how to make it right.

At this point, I have yet to encounter a truly bad MasterClass. They're all being judged against each other. Ron Howard's directing class remains for me the gold standard of what MasterClass should be, at least if you have any interest in directing.

If you're strictly about writing, Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes classes are both more in depth about TV writing specifically, but by their very nature, they're not too helpful when it comes to crafting comedy. Judd Apatow's course deals with comedy from a writing/directing standpoint, but I'd give Martin the edge over him simply because Martin covers performing and seeing him react to other students and writing he's not responsible for allows him to show how you can apply his expertise outside the control group of his own work.

Is it worth $90? I've justified the math for the other classes and this is on par with several of the better courses. For my money, the real value is in the All-Access Pass. For $180/year, or the cost of just two courses, you get access to ALL the courses. At that point, you can really amortize your investment. Doing six classes in a year brings that down to $30/class - not too shabby at all.

If you want my take, Ron Howard's directing class is essential and you can compliment it with any of the other writing classes, using my reviews as a guide towards what would appeal to you.

Buy Steve Martin Teaches Comedy for $90 here.

If the All-Access Pass for $180/year is more your speed, go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Writing/Directing
Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing

Acting:
Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Music/Performance
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance

Sports
Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Cooking
Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking

Other:
Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography